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The Weir

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 14 September

History is a patchwork of remembrance and imagination. Oral history and storytelling are also both factual and dream-weaving. The strength of Conor McPherson’s play The Weir is that it balances the two strands into one dramatic reality.

We’re in a small bar by the side of an Irish lake, which in the past has had a weir constructed to make use of the water to create electricity. The bar is a home-from-home for Jack (Sean Murray) and Jim (John O’Dowd), local middle-aged bachelors – nice country girls don’t and men don’t marry the ones who do.

Their current subject of conversation is Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), the English woman who is renting a house from Finbar (Louis Dempsey). Finbar brings her into the br, hoping to profit by introducing her to some “local colour”, and the men oblige first with spooky tales and then with equally troubling reminiscences.

Valerie must be the first woman to break into this male enclave, Christmas celebrations excepted. Slowly they start treating her as a sort of honorary man, and she returns the compliment of their storytelling with that of her own real-life tragedy.

Sensitively directed by Adele Thomas, this collaborative production between the Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre benefits from a set by Madeleine Girling which combines realism with a sense of displacement. Richard Hammarton’s score and sound design adds to the atmosphere and the sense of both the power and the impermanence of water, as does the lighting by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban.

The performances measure up both as character studies and as people. Radmall-Quirke is excellent as the woman who slots into this strange earthly masculine yet faery world and Dempsey has the right sort of wallet-flashing brashness. Sam O’Mahony plays Brendan, the youngish bar owner, a man who has settled down with his alloted fate.

O’Dowd gives a sympathetic portrait of a quiet, largely unemployed man who needs to keep an eye on how he spends his pennies while Murray’s apparently outgoing and contented Jack reveals his own sense of might-have-been wrapped in a shroud of all-for-the-best.

it builds slowly – the bar habitués have basically only time to spend, so they spin that out in their familiar fashions. Valerie is the catalyst who releases those pasts – actual and mythological – with something of the force of lightning.

Five star rating.

The Weir continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 16 September with a matinée on 16 September. The national tour continues until 25 November and resumes in 2018 with performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 6 and 10 March.

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Nell Gwynn
reviewed in Cambridge on 21 March

A historical play – just like a historical novel – is not necessarily a straightforward documentary. The historian has to stick to the known facts, and be prepared to answer for any assumptions to his or her peers. The novelist is controlled by a far looser rein, and the dramatist is given even greater licence.

So Jessica Swale’s version of the life of arguably the most famous actress of the 17th century, Nell Gwynn, never lets the (perilously few) known facts get in the way of a thoroughly theatrical romp. It makes for an enagaging evening’s entertainment, augmented in Christopher Luscombe’s English Touring Theatre production by the Globe Theatre-style set and costume designs of Hugh Durrant and by Nigel Hess’ pastiche score.

This is very well performed by both cast and instrumentalists Emily Banes, Sharon Lindo, Arngeir Hauksson and Nicholas Perry. Charlotte Broom is the choreographer, keeping the stage a-swirl with stamps and turns. There are a number of entrances from the auditorium with the occasional circle and box level interjection; I suspect these work better in playhouse-type theatres than in a less flexible one such as the Cambridge Arts.

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell is a delight, giving the back-street orange-seller turned actress and then king’s mistress real personality as her enthusiasms bubble with scant regard for the status of those at whom she aims them. Her two Charles are Ben Righton as Charles II and Sam Marks as leading-man Charles Hart. Frantically striving to keep everything (and everyone) on the right path are Michael Cochrane as Lord Arlington and Clive Heyward as King’s Company manager Killigrew.

The human-being behind the stereotype is particularly apparent in some of Righton’s exchanges with Pitt-Pulford, in Esh Alladi’s portrait of the rapidly becoming redundant player of women’s parts Edward Kynaston and in the short sequence when Joanne Howarth’s flamboyantly strident Catherine of Braganza suddenly kneels to the king and hushes the house with her echo of Catherine of Aragon’s Blackfriars plea to Henry VIII.

This is history with its own validity, because in two hours has necessarily to concentrate and condense both characters and action while keeping the audience attentive from first to last, simply and basically by entertaining it. You do go away at the end with a certain spring in your step – and that’s probably as good an accolade as any.

Four and a half-star rating.

Nell Gwynn continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 March with matinées on 23 and 25 March.

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